Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night being unable to move? Do you know that feeling of waking up from a bad dream and you can’t scream? If you have never experienced one of these sensations, you can consider yourself to be a lucky man or woman. Sleep paralysis is literally one of the scariest feelings that I have ever undergone!

What is this… Sleep Paralysis?

It is not a fictitious character from a horror film. Sleep paralysis is a medical condition. In some people it will manifest only rarely, if ever. But in others it can become a serious problem that can keep you from sleeping and resting properly.

Do I really need to rest on a regular basis?

By now you should have noticed that going without sleep is not the best way to keep healthy, both physically and mentally. Sleep is an essential body function that allows our bodies to heal and rejuvenate after our days activities. During sleep our minds categorise what happened to- and around us during the day. Sleep allows our brains to consolidate memories and store what we learned throughout the day.

In children sleep stimulates growth. It gives their little bodies the precious time it needs to heal from the various bumps and bruises they might have picked up while learning how they are put together. Have you ever wondered why children have to sleep much more than grownups? Because they need to grow and heal all the time! During sleep their bodies can focus on that, without the distractions of learning how to walk and talk…

There are many other amazing properties associated with sleep. But we will not go into those right now. Let us just leave it at this: Sleep is probably one of the most underrated and undervalued survival mechanism built into us humans. Without it, we simply cannot grow or go on.

Back to Sleep Paralysis.

How does sleep paralysis influence your sleeping pattern? If you are lucky, not at all! But on the other hand, if you are not, it might have some bad effects on your body’s natural rhythm. What most probably started off as a one-time occurrence can develop into a life changing condition. Some people fear sleep paralysis so much, that they dare not go to sleep. Yes, I know, that is quite extreme! But hey, it happens!

Here is how it works

We have spoken about Rapid Eye Movement sleep a couple of times already, so you should be familiar with the concept by now. If, however, you are a new reader, we do not want to make work. So we will give you a brief overview of what Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM) is. No, we are not referring to the band, and yes, there is a Man on the Moon.

Rapid Eye Movement Sleep – a quick recap:

The REM sleep phase is also sometimes called the Paradoxical sleep phase. This is because during REM the brain is much more active than during the other phases of sleep. Scientists have tracked brainwave patterns in human test subjects and found that the brain can show more activity during REM sleep than during periods of active and intense problem solving. They are not a hundred percent sure why this happens, but this is the reason for also calling REM sleep Paradoxical sleep.

It is during REM sleep that the brain sorts and organises what you have learnt throughout the day. Studies show that missing out on REM sleep induces forgetfulness and a general lack of concentration.

So what does REM sleep have to do with sleep paralysis? Well, basically everything. When our bodies enter the Paradoxical sleep phase, the stem of the brain sends out signals that temporarily disable our ability to move our muscles. Scientists believe that this is a defence mechanism, because when we are in REM sleep we have the most vivid dreams. Because our voluntary muscles are disabled, we cannot act out the physical component of those dreams.

It is common to go through short periods of wakefulness during the paradoxical sleep phase, and it is during these waking moments that we experience sleep paralysis.

You can imagine that waking up while your body is semi-disabled can feel a bit strange, right? Well let me tell you, it can be downright terrifying! Please allow me to share my worst experiences of sleep paralysis with you:

When I was still in primary school I had this nightmare. It was about a serial killer roaming the streets of our neighbourhood, killing people by stabbing them between the shoulder blades with a knife. In my bad dream, the killer started targeting kids at my school. As bad dreams go, I soon became his number one target and no-one escaped this killer! I can still remember the terror of knowing this guy was after me. It was horrible.

At last, the murder found me. I was in a crowd on the playground, but being surrounded by people could not save me from his knife. In the dream, he stabbed me squarely between the shoulder blades, just like he did with all of his other victims. As the knife pierced my skin though, I woke up from the dream. Under normal circumstances it would have been a relief to wake up, but not this time! When I woke up I could still feel the sharp sensation of the knife piercing my back, but I could not move! I could not scream either. For the first couple of seconds after waking up, I was sure that this was it. I was going to die.

When I eventually regained my motor skills, I screamed my lungs out! Startled by my sudden outburst, the cat that was kneading my back jumped off and sped away. Relieved, I realised that it was only the cat’s sharp claws that had pierced my skin and not some serial killer’s knife…

A kitten baring its teeth in a yawn

Okay, so sleep paralysis is a real phenomenon. What now?

If you are experiencing sleep paralysis, you can at least be thankful for the fact that you do not sleep walk or have REM sleep behaviour disorder. These are conditions where your brain does not tell your body to enter atonia, the state where your body is semi paralysed during REM sleep. In sleep paralysis, the brain starts waking up while the body is still in REM sleep. Luckily for us, sleep paralysis does not affect our involuntary muscle movements such as breathing.

As a rule, sleep paralysis occurs while you are falling asleep or waking up. If you experience it while you are falling asleep, you are undergoing hypnagogic sleep paralysis. On the other hand, if you undergo sleep paralysis while you are waking up, it is called hypnopompic sleep paralysis. I do not know if that information is of any worth to us commoners, but do with it what you will…

I’m joking! I can tell you a bit more about the different types of sleep paralysis. When you are busy falling asleep, your muscles are relaxing. Usually you will not be aware of the transition between being awake and going to sleep, but on the rare occasion it happens. And when it does, it is scary! During hypnagogic sleep paralysis, you can see, hear and smell, but you can’t speak or move. Yikes!

Hypnopompic sleep paralysis simply takes place while you are transitioning from REM sleep to either wakefulness or deeper non-REM sleep. If you become aware during this transition, you will experience sleep paralysis.

Who gets sleep paralysis?

Most people will experience sleep paralysis at one stage or another, but only four out of ten will experience recurring sleep paralysis. As a rule, sleep paralysis starts manifesting in teenagers. It recurs in people that do not sleep enough or change their sleeping patterns on a regular basis. What does that tell you? Sleep more and try to keep your sleeping cycle steady.

It can also be ascribed to taking prescription medication or substance abuse. People suffering from bipolar disorder are more likely to experience sleep paralysis than healthy individuals. Funny enough, sleeping on your back is also a trigger for sleep paralysis. Other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy or sleep apnea may also increase your chances of experiencing sleep paralysis.

Some scary facts about sleep paralysis.

You can’t control it

If you wake up and your body is still in a state of atonia, you will just have to wait until it passes. You can try to force your body to move, but that will not work. The only thing it will achieve is to increase your paranoia. Just wait it out. Ride it like a wave. I can promise you, if you try to force your body to do something and your body does not respond the way you want it to, it is terrifying! It is like trying to breath with your head in a plastic bag. Absolutely out of this world terrifying! So, when you experience sleep paralysis, just breathe.

Sleep paralysis may cause hallucinations…

Yes. When you wake up in a semi-disabled state, your brain might conjure up all sorts of horrors. It might be an extension of your bad dream, or it might just be your imagination running wild. Luckily the experts say that hallucinating during sleep paralysis is fairly rare. They mostly ascribe it to your already panicked mindset.

How can you prevent it?

Unfortunately scientists haven’t discovered the exact cause for sleep paralysis yet. Therefore they could not come up with a failsafe cure as of yet. Here are a few tips though:

  • Be sure to get enough shut eye.
  • Follow a fixed pattern when you sleep. Go to bed at roughly the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning.
  • Do not abuse drugs.
  • Do not drink too much alcohol before bed time.
  • Try not to eat before you go to bed.
  • Get enough shut eye. Oh, I said that already? Well, it is important, okay!? More important than wearing sunscreen. (Don’t tell Baz Luhrmann I said so).

And that’s a wrap, ladies and gentlemen! Thank you for reading and as always, be sure to check out our amazing selection of fine mattresses and pillows. Who knows, maybe sleeping on the right bed might lessen your chances of waking up in the middle of the night with a cold sweat and a scream that won’t come out!

 

2 thoughts on “Sleep Paralysis – What You Need to Know

  1. Well have you ever! I used to experience hypnagogic sleep paralysis and now at the age of 75 I hear that it is a pretty common thing.
    People around me were terrified when I told them about my experience and I must admit I was terrified out of my mind when it happened.
    So much so that I stopped taking my Sunday naps after lunch. I used very often to wake up and be able to hear and experience my surrounding, but I could not open up my eyes or move ANYTHING.
    This is the most terrifying thing I ever experienced in my life.
    I haven’t had this now for a very very long time so I think it has ‘worn off’? Strangely enough it never happened during normal sleep in bed, only when I was lying on the floor in front of the big window. I think this may have had something to do with it as I remember I was often lying in the sun, whether it be summer or winter.

    1. Hi Hans,

      Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

      Sleep paralysis is definitely one of the scariest things anyone can experience.

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